November 21, 2008

Panel Explores Psychological Effects of Torture

Print More

Last night, Cornell students, staff, faculty and Ithaca locals came together in Kaufmann Auditorium for a panel discussion that featured doctors from the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. The program provides comprehensive care for victims of torture and aspires to raise public consciousness about such issues. The Campus Anti-War Network, the Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations and Amnesty International sponsored the event.
The panel included Dr. Allen Keller, who oversees and coordinates medical programs for Survivors of Torture, Dr. Samantha Stewart, the program’s psychiatrist and Dr. Homer Venters, the attending physician of the program.
Keller launched the panel with a query to the audience: “How would you define health?” He said that one student’s definition, which stated that health is the “absence of disease,” is problematic, because it does not account for a full trajectory of suffering that includes physical, psychological and social aspects that afflict patients.
Keller used real-life examples to highlight the different types of suffering that patients in the Survivors for Torture Program face.[img_assist|nid=33792|title=Grave consequences|desc=Dr. Allen Keller speaks at “Survivors of Torture,” a series of lectures followed by a panel discussion addressing the unforeseen relations between the practice of torture, its psycho-medical consequences, and U.S. Foreign and Domestic Policies in Kaufman|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
One man, who emigrated from Asia to Afghanistan to work, tried to flee the country when the U.S. invaded. He was detained at the border, though, when he did not have a passport. He was turned over to U.S. officials and sent to Guantanamo Bay.
In Guantanamo, the detainee was forced to stand in a cage with his hands exposed at all times for fear of being beaten, interrogated in extremely hot or cold rooms and subjected to sexual humiliation, including an incident in which he was smeared with menstrual blood. He was eventually released free of charge after signing a forced confession, according to Keller.
Keller said he does not doubt credibility when it comes to stories like this one after working with so many patients who have been subjected to torture of this nature.
“Never have I seen a place where so many resources were invested to break an individual’s humanity,” Keller said. “Torture isn’t often about eliciting information. It is dubious at best.”
Such torture can result in depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD results when a person experiences a certain degree of horror and helplessness during a trauma, leading to continued feelings of hyper-arousal, re-experiencing the trauma and emotional and social numbness, according to Stewart.
Stewart shared the story of one of her patients, a student from Turkey who came to the U.S. on a student visa. After earning his MBA, he became engaged to an American woman and applied for a marriage visa. Although he followed the proper immigration procedures, he was detained, was separated from his partner and lost his house and job.
“[People] with pre-torture brains imagine that going through that would teach us some deeper meaning in life,” Stewart said. “Counter to those of us who have not been through this [who] might expect the opposite, going through something like this makes you feel like there’s no meaning.”
Cases like these are not few and far between. Immigration detention is the quickest, fastest growing form of detention in the U.S.
U.S. Immi­gration and Customs Enforcement detains immigrants in raids or when they enter the country if they do not have the proper documentation, according to Venters.
At any given time, there are 30,000 immigrants in detention. Immigrants who attempt to enter the U.S. with false documentation, at times because they are trying to escape a punitive government in their own countries, are charged with breaking the law and detained. Last year 300,000 people went through this system, according to Venters.
“Laws are taking very overt steps to criminalize immigrants society wide … like how the war on drugs criminalized drug users,” said Venters.
In the final discussion section of the lecture, questions were raised about whether or not President-Elect Barack Obama’s administration would allow detained immigrants exercise the right to healthcare, a right which they are currently denied.
“There is a lot of horror but there is a lot of hope. Don’t presume that if we don’t speak out about torture, someone else will,” said Keller.
Andres Mendoza ’10, member of the Campus Anti-War Network, said that he organized the panel in order to reflect on the connection between the subjectivity of torture and its larger implications.
“From the beginning, I was trying to build a connection between torture, which is a personal experience, and foreign and domestic policies, which are things we believe we can even control, which are too large to deal with,” said Mendoza.
Malcolm Sanborn-Hum ’11, another member of CAN who helped organize the panel said that he wanted to bring the panel as part of CAN’s efforts.
“[It] struck me as a really important topic that needs to be brought up in our discourse. The U.S. is not subtle in its torture. We are ultimately accountable for this — it’s our taxpayer money that is detaining 300,000 people,” he said.